computer games

Building little empires of out of some crazy garbage

Why does a multi-millionaire strive to make yet more money?  How could a teenager derive more satisfaction from the purchase of a second-hand jalopy than a middle-aged executive acquiring their third luxury sports car?  Because happiness and satisfaction are associated with relative improvement, not absolute achievement.  As long as you are better off today than you were yesterday, by whatever measurement floats your particular boat, you’ll feel good.

No, I haven’t decided to branch out into a self-help blog.  I was just setting up being able to use a quote – ‘In games, as in life‘.

An innate goal that players set for themselves in any game that allows it is to continually improve their situation.  Many games tap into this powerful urge by starting the player in a relatively uniform, weak or barely adequate state, and then offer opportunities for the player to make it more personalized, powerful or capable.  In Civilization, the aim of the game is to turn your little empire into a great one.  In Spelunky and Dungeon Bash, the player constantly strives to make their character or team more capable.

Look at Farmville.  A quick google, and many of the top results are articles sniffing that because its such a ‘dumb game’, it must be the ‘power of social-networking’ that is responsible for its phenomenal success.  Well sure, social-networking is a great way to promote awareness of the game and get people to give it a test-run, but the game itself must be doing something right to hold on to players for any significant time.  If you aren’t familiar with Farmville, its basically Sim City lite.  The same basic gameplay as Sim City is going on, except the game itself is less complicated and very accessible to new players.  The thing that is going on is resource management decisions in pursuit of the goal of building the player’s own little farm.  You start off with a certain amount of money, and you decide which crops to grow, and harvesting your crops gives you more money.  You can buy other stuff to personalize your farm, and tractors and things to make harvesting easier, etc…  As games go, it’s fairly shallow – the variety and depth of the decisions the player makes is limited.  As long as the player tends to their farm frequently enough, it’s existence is never threatened.  But regardless, it does allow the player to make decisions in pursuit of the goal of continual improvement and that’s enough.  Without that basic thing going on, no other amount of social-networking stuff laid on top would get anyone to play it for very long.

Minecraft is an example of this goal used in it’s purest form.  In this game you start with a pick-axe and a few other resources, and you can literally end up building the Taj Mahal.  This game has two modes: survival mode in which your resources are limited and the existence of your character is threatened by monsters and environmental hazards, and creative mode, where you have infinite resources, super powers, and nothing to worry about except what to build.  My exhaustive research (I googled it and clicked on the first three links) shows that survival mode is more popular.  Survival mode takes the improvement goal and combines it with some consequential decision making and thus makes a game of it.  Creative mode does not.

So.  The pursuit of improvement is probably the most important goal a game can facilitate.  Many successful games don’t use it, but many, many, many successful games do, and for good reason.

Decisions, decisions

Hi, and welcome to my first post for the Armpit Games blog.

Here I will talk about game design in general, and the things I learn by developing and publishing Dungeon Bash – a mobile game I am currently working on.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS….  imagine Im having a Steve Balmer-like rant (but less sweaty).

The significant decisions your game offers the player are the most important factor in game design.  Of any type of game – tabletop, computer, or otherwise.  I imagine a game as being a cannon constantly firing a stream of decisions at the player.  When the rate of decisions slows, or the decisions become meaningless, then the fun stops.

By ‘significant’ decisions I mean those that have an impact on how the game plays out.  Whether it involves success at ‘solving’ the game, or the direction of the narrative, or achieving certain goals, or just plain survival.  This is the reason ‘game balance’ in conflict-type games is so important.  If the game is too easy, or too hard, no matter what decision the player makes, it wont affect the outcome.  They will win or lose no matter what choice they make.

So the best place to start when analyzing your game is to list the decisions that it forces the player to make, and when it does so.  For instance, Dungeon Bash is mostly about making a constant stream of tactical decisions.  Decisions about when to attack, when to run, do I use this now or save it for latter, do I group tight or spread out, order of march when in corridors of exiting a level, which character would benefit most from equipping this item, who should tank and who should flank, etc, etc, etc…  Dungeon Bash is a turn-based game and it is at its best when one decision can mean the difference between victory and disaster.

Decisions can also lose their significance once the player becomes familliar with them.  The first time a particular level in a puzzle game is played, it is new and the decisions being made cause the player to engage and think.  But once the puzzle is solved, the replay value of that level diminishes rapidly.

In Dungeon Bash, decisions are kept fresh by providing variety – each time you play it offers a different team of three characters so that the player has to learn how best to handle that particular combination.  Every level is programatically generated so the player cant anticipate the lay of the land.  And there is a very large number of monsters to encounter, that will appear alone, in mixed groups, or swarms of the identical creatures.   All of this is aimed at forcing the player to make significant decisions as frequently as possible, by placing the characters in an endless variety of tactical situations.

You should try to categorize and describe games in terms of the decisions it offers.  Dungeon Bash is largely tactical and resource management.  A puzzle game offers logical and spatial decisions.  A story-based game should offer chances to affect the ongoing narrative.  Multiplayer games involving alliances or factions revolve around making trust and communication decisions.

In analyzing your own game, you can look at your list of decisions and decide:

  • Is this decision significant?  If not, how can it be made so, or should I just get rid of it?
  • Are there situations in the game where the player makes no significant decisions for long periods?  How can I reduce the length of those periods, or introduce new decision-making into them?

Keep your decision-cannon firing big, bold decisions at the player as fast as it can!